I Remember, I Believe

Following my recent sabbatical and the opportunity to connect deeply with folks I love and folks who love me, I’m reminded that faith is a group effort. Someone helped us get it, and many folks help us keep it.

I remember a challenging period in college more than 25 years ago. I was in near constant contact with my mom who informed me during a phone call that my grandma was praying for me. Grandma Hilda could pray down the walls of Jericho. Knowing she was on my case gave me peace and courage. Hilda Milledge, born in 1904, married at fourteen and had her last of 10 children in her middle 40s. She and my grandpa were sharecroppers who eventually owned their own home – no small feat for the children of slaves. And she could pray down the walls of Jericho… We all need someone in our lives who will pray us into peace and courage.

Mack & Hilda Wilder

Mack & Hilda Wilder

From the beginning of time, I believe faith has been about a community who shares all of what they have in common. What we have is more than money and material possessions. We share joys and heartbreaks, accomplishments and failures. When the old folks said, “God never gives us more than we can bear,” I think the “us” they meant was a community of people helping one another to make it through – holding faith for those who couldn’t hold it for themselves, remembering God’s grace for those who found it unbelievable, propping one another up on every leaning side. Africans survived slavery because of the faith of their community. Because of them, we remember and we believe.

Sadly, we individualize our faith journey. We think it belongs to us personally. We convince ourselves that hardships are ours to bear silently and alone. We get proud of our service and of the length of our prayers. We give more import to our personal piety while neglecting the care of our human community. We have forgotten that our faith is bigger than us and what we can bear or accomplish alone. And for Christians, regardless of color, the gift of Black history is a calling back to faith made powerful in community. It is a hard won inheritance borne out of African blood spilled on American soil, and it benefits us all if we allow it to. It is a gift that, should we receive it, enriches our understanding of forgiveness, restoration, and transformation.

Our faith depends on the waves of prayer and love coming at us from other people. There was the elder in an Oakland, CA church I served who often said, “I’m praying for you, pastor.” There are my sister-friends and professor-mentors with their steady encouragement. Here in NYC it is the shop owners and the self-identified atheists who donate to the church’s feeding ministry just because they see us trying to keep hungry people fed.

Someone helped us get our faith and many folks help us keep it. Children of God are not alone. People surround us and lovingly push us to be more courageous, more compassionate, more Christ-like. We can draw upon their radiance when we cannot bear another minute of our topsy-turvy existence. Like the great cloud of witnesses, our community keeps us company. They help us keep our faith.

And we inhale the same air as the people we admire – one that I have studied and written a small amount on is Ida B. Wells-Barnett who worked tirelessly in the anti-lynching campaign here in the U.S. Where did an African-American woman, born a slave, find the audacity in the America of the 1920s to speak out against lynching?!! I’m convinced she had a Grandma Hilda praying down the walls of Jericho.

The well-known and lesser-known people we celebrate during Black history month and throughout the year, make my faith bigger, stronger and grander. I pray you will find a bigger, stronger, grander faith in the Black history that is accurately American history and that you will know the God and the community who will never leave you to hold your faith alone.

You are loved.

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4 thoughts on “I Remember, I Believe

  1. A good, and needed post.

    The gates of hell won’t stand against the church, not individual believers. As an adult when I was in the faith I identified as a member of a church (which was supportive) first and Christian second. I have since fallen away from the faith but there is no way I’m going back without a supportive church. I don’t think this is an invalid excuse. I can’t trust my thoughts or emotions because of mental illness. And the internet which I live on is a medium not conducive to building up one’s faith. I think the church has done wonderful work supporting oppressed groups like African Americans. It just needs to stand up for those of us with mental illnesses as well.

    • I agree with you that the church needs to do a better job standing up for people with mental illness. And the church has a poor track record of standing up in general. The church universal has actually not done the best job, in my opinion, supporting African-Americans – hence the rise of the black church. Even in my own denomination (RCA), there is the need for racial/ethnic councils to call our remembrance back to issues of importance to folks of color. The Dutch Reformed Church wrote the justification for apartheid in South Africa. The US
      white Christian churches did the same sort of justification for slavery. Christian pastors participated in the KKK and the lynchings of Black people. I wouldn’t describe the church’s support for African-Americans as “wonderful” by a long shot. The church today is generally silent on issues that disproportionaty affect folks of color – immigration, poverty, living wages, affordable housing, etc. and if these issues are raised in church, not many are willing to tackle the race and class pieces that come with facing these challenges head on. I couldn’t agree with you more on the issue of supporting people with mental illness, and sadly waiting on the church is waiting on an institution that historically has fallen short on their call to the last, least, and left out. I hope we can push the church we love to be something other than a place playing catch up when it comes to being on the side of the good and the right. May it be so…

  2. Adrienne, your post reminds me of two things: First, I just returned from a multi-ethnic conference for my division of InterVarsity. I chose to go to a seminar on colorblindness because while I knew it wasn’t the greatest position, I didn’t know what other positions there were.

    On the one hand, if a person is colorblind, then what we’re trying to say is that a person’s color isn’t the first thing we see, or how we define that person. That’s a good thing. On the other hand, when we say we’re colorblind, we’re implicitly, if not explicitly saying that this person’s color doesn’t matter, that it doesn’t impact their life experience, that it isn’t important, etc.

    I understood both sides of the argument, because I don’t want my disability to be the first or only thing by which people define me, but if someone says, “I don’t see your disability”, then you’re telling me that my disability has absolutely no bearing on my life, personality, and so on. That’s also wrong. My supervisor, who is Asian American, also pointed out that if we claim colorblindness, we are also discounting the culture that precedes the person we have a relationship with, and we cheapen all the blood, sweat, and tears that their history holds.

    That made me realize that I too think that my faith belongs to me personally, and that my history begins and ends with me. Neither of which are true. This is so because of thought number 2:

    I am indeed surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Nowhere is this more apparent than how God has brought together the support for my first year of ministry with InterVarsity. I’d gotten to the point where all I needed was the last $7,000. Which in the large scheme of things wasn’t much, but it’s still $7,000! From Tuesday to Friday after returning from the the conference, God provided all those funds AND MORE through people who love me. All I could do was look up to the heavens and say, “What did you just do?!” I hadn’t really done anything. It was the closest I’ve ever come to experiencing magic.

    As much as I would like to pretend otherwise, I can’t do this on my own, and yes, I even deserve the gifts they are giving me–even though there is no way I’d ever be able to repay any of them. My faith is not my own. My ministry is not my own. It belongs first to God, second to the 123 people who support me, and lastly to me. I am surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.

    Anyway, just a long-winded way of saying your post resonated with me.

    • Thank you, Jill for your comments. I appreciated your wrestling. Whether we like it or not, we are what people see and assume about us, but as I tell my 3.5 year old daughter, “You know who you are!” She and you and we know who we truly are – children of the most high God. I ground my daughter in her human beauty and her true identity because in this world, someone will try to take it from her because of her color, the texture of her hair, the fullness of her lips, and on and on. Like my mom and grandma, like your Asian mentor, we must surround ourselves with people who know who we are and that what we look like is only the surface. Sweet Honey in the Rock recorded a song called WE ARE that I encourage you to check out. The lyrics say, in part:
      “We are our grandmothers prayers
      we are our grandfathers dreamings
      we are the breath of the ancestors
      we are the spirit of God

      We are Mothers of courage
      fathers of time
      Daughters of dust
      sons of great visions
      we are sisters of mercy
      brothers of love
      lovers of life and the builders of nations

      We’re seekers of truth
      and keepers of faith
      makers of peace wisdom of ages”

      We have to know that we are so much more than what meets the eye. So grateful you were able to raise your support and so very excited for the ways God will use you. Blessings…

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